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When comparisons regarding poetry and poets become an issue, it is easy to remember a cliché that, in the manner of the best clichés, always seems applicable: comparisons are odious. Yet comparing things is both central to poetic practice (for those of us hardy enough to go in for a good simile or metaphor now and then) and critical practice as well. Put simply, comparisons are how a vigorous literary mind works. We are able to make sense of what is new by comparing it to older things. It works if you reverse the equation, too; as T.S. Eliot noted in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” remarkable new works transform and transmute our conceptions of older masterpieces (if we posit that there are, in fact, poems good enough to be considered general masterpieces.)
It would seem that, if comparisons are odious, we, as poets and critics, had better get used to the unpleasant smell of ourselves and of others. Or, we could throw the cliché out the window, working under the assumption that throwing clichés out the window is part of our job anyway. That’s probably better.
All these issues have been going through my head as I’ve read, re-read, and re-read Jordan Stempleman’s Facings, which was put out by Otoliths in 2007. Not only have I been tempted to compare it to things, but there is one specific, generally regarded masterpiece that I’ve been tempted to compare it to: John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. All the same, I’ve been wary about this comparison. Those are some mighty big boots to fill, and I do not believe that absolute, unequivocal parity has been established. Nevertheless, all of Facings is of a high quality, and a handful of the poems do, in fact, compare (and achieve parity or near-parity) with the poems in Ashbery’s book.
Thematically, Stempleman and Ashbery cover much of the same ground: alienation, isolation, displacement (sexual, emotional, spiritual, what have you), and the theme that would bind them both to Four Quartets era Eliot (to extend the comparative reach), temporality.
I believe it may be best, when one is being ambitious and daring, to get down to brass tacks as quickly as possibly. Here, quoted in full, is a poem from Stempleman’s book, called “The Apartment”:
He asked, who lives there,
then brought over his
laundry, covered all the
windows with socks, his old
t-shirts, pillowcases now
separated from their sheets.
The day seemed to go on
forever. The sunlight, and only
the sunlight, almost made its way
through, went on trying to get in
for a very long time.
We see a move here that Ashbery often makes: the placement of a character that remains unnamed, never “takes on flesh,” and is surrounded by images of implosion and desolation. An obvious example from Self-Portrait would be “A Man of Words,” with its memorable opening lines, “His case inspires interest/ But little sympathy; it is smaller/ Than at first appeared.” In the interest of comparison extension, I’d like to opine that the tradition that Ashbery and Stempleman are plugging into here has as much to do with Bertolt Brecht, and his famous alienating techniques, than with any poet in the Modern or Post-Modern canon (though of course Brecht also wrote poetry.)
Brechtian alienation gives us characters that we are not meant to identify with. Given his very catholic taste in art, it is certainly likely that Ashbery would incorporate Brechtian alienation techniques into his poems, and Stempleman has followed suit. It is also worth noting that while sophisticated techniques are employed to create a certain ambience around an amorphous character, we nonetheless have a linear narrative here. Just as “A Man of Words,” despite some opacity, tells a story (literary grandeur gone to seed), so Stempleman’s poem tells a story too. Temporality extended (the day going on “forever,” sunlight trying to get in “for a very long time”) gives a sense of stasis, while the title of the poem tells us that, unlike Eliot’s “Prufrock,” we are looking at a poor man (“old t-shirts” is another clue) wasting away. Rather than Ashbery’s faded grandeur, Stempleman gives us grandeur that never was, is not, and can never be. It would be a bit of a stretch, but you could see in “sunlight” a metaphor for the creative process. Yet this potential saving grace is thwarted, and the ruination that ends Ashbery’s “Man of Words” is also in evidence here.
It would seem that the ability to tell a story, without resorting to epiphanic commonplaces, confessional melodrama, or pseudo-profound mythologizing, is relatively rare in modern poetry. When a middle-of-the-road stalwart like Billy Collins tells a story, we plug up our ears and stick to a party-line that has become rote: give us inquiry, give us exploration, do not give us hokey generalizations and anecdotal pap.
What is remarkable about Ashbery, and Stempleman after him, is that a story is half-told, a narrative half-presented, in such a way that we are invited to create a story along with the poet. In this specific case, Stempleman’s language leans towards the homely (in contrast to Ashbery’s more baroque tilt): laundry, socks, and sheets. The combination of quotidian items and an incompletely sketched, though obviously alienated character, who moves through the poem in a kind of ellipse, is novel. To bring biography into the equation, Ashbery is an urban poet; New York and New York life constitutes part of his métier. Stempleman is rooted in the Mid-Western (based as he is in Iowa City); homeliness substitutes for urbanity, domestic detail for baroque. Yet the mood, the ambience, is strangely similar.
An even greater quotient of palpability, and affectivity, is visible in “The Retired Couple”:
Stop licking the bread
before calling me into that impossible position again.
The night to remember is impatiently waiting
to be left alone.
It is said there is a greenhouse in this night,
filled with a kind of bamboo
that can tend to itself.
I mean, that’s actually why it’s there.
To live without us, without so much as a visit,
doing whatever it is the unthinkable do.
On the surface level, this poem brings to light another predilection that binds Eliot to Ashbery, and then Ashbery to Stempleman; aphorism. Ashbery’s famous “The night, as usual, knew what it was doing” (not actually from Self-Portrait) is echoed here by Stempleman’s “The night to remember is impatiently waiting/ to be left alone.” With Stempleman, as with Eliot and Ashbery, aphorism becomes a way of building what is durable from what is memorable. Like an affecting bit of melody, these lines stick in the reader’s head without effort, rendering the poem a persistent presence, something ineluctable. The substance of this particular phrase is the same kind of desolation visible in “The Apartment,” only this is a two person, rather than a one person scenario. This heightens the emotional tension, ups the ante, as in Ashbery’s “Poem in Three Parts.”
It is also worth noting that something is in this poem that is not in Ashbery (or most Eliot); the use of conversational diction we see in “I mean, that’s actually why it’s there.” It is important to remember that Stempleman is, in fact, a younger poet writing in 2008 America. The overt and excellent classicism of his work would tend to elide this from his profile, but at odd moments such as this, colloquial America jumps into the picture. This is not a fault, and it is to Stempleman’s credit that he is able to mix different worlds of language use so effectively.
Ashbery and Stempleman both deal with issues of emotional entanglement. Yet their approach is oblique enough so that, as with storytelling in these poems, we are encouraged to participate.
The first two lines of Stempleman’s poem are potently ambiguous: “Stop licking the bread/ before calling me into that impossible position again.” Beyond the brutal sting of a near end-rhyme, what is enunciated here could be a reference to the sexual, the emotional, the spiritual, or any combination or permutation of these. “Impossible position,” of course, implies that this retired couple no longer have sex, that physical intimacy has become an impossibility. Yet this is fertile ground for glossing; “licking the bread” could refer to money, or the ravages of age that have forced these two to eat lightly. “Licking the bread” is also repellent, an image of repulsion (leading us back to the Brechtian.) We are not invited to feel along with these two; we may feel like we’re looking down the wrong end of a telescope. “Licking” is, or maybe, overtly sexual, so that thematically we have both a kind of avowal and denial in two lines.
In short, the way Stempleman opens the poem may give the reader a swift kick in the gut, such as we see when Ashbery writes, in “Farm,” “Living with the girl/ Got kicked into the sod of things.”
I don’t have many gripes with Facings. I find all of it admirable, some of it stunning. However, I have taken the initiative here and compared it to a masterpiece. If I’m not arguing for parity, it would seem fair that I should lay out some reasons that Facings is not a masterpiece on a level with Self-Portrait.
Very little has been said or written about Ashbery’s sensuality. People tend to think of him as an intellectual poet. Yet, Self-Portrait is full of sensual details, and it is part of the greatness of the book that it melds the sensual and the intellectual so seamlessly. Stempleman can be a little barren this way, a little short on the sensual details, the “limpid, dense twilight(s),” “smoking dishes,” “snake plant(s) and cacti” we see in Ashbery’s book.
Shortly, what is abstract in Stempleman is more or less equal to what is abstract in Ashbery; what is not in Stempleman is the palpable half of the equation. There is more breath is Ashbery’s line, more expansiveness, than is found in Stempleman’s rather crimped line; Stempleman, in his lesser poems, tends to rely on the merely clever.
Yet, Ashbery did not come to Self-Portrait until he was in his late forties; Stempleman released this book at age 30. As an unbiased observer, there would seem to me to be little reason not to believe that, in time, Jordan Stempleman could write a book that would achieve absolute parity with Ashbery, and set the poetry world on its ear all over again.
Adam Fieled is a poet, critic, and musician. He has released four albums, including two spoken word collections, “Raw Rainy Fog” (Radio Eris Records, 2002), and “Virtual Pinball/Madame Psychosis” (WSG Productions, 2006), edits the blog-journal PFS Post, and has work in or forthcoming in Dusie, Eratio, Mipoesias, Blazevox, Word For/Word, Rain Taxi, Ocho, Cake Train, Words Dance, Great Works, Cordite, and Nth Position. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he also holds an MFA in poetry from New England College and is a University Fellow and PHD candidate at Temple University.